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Resolution would exempt Hawkins elderly from $40 wheel tax hike

Jeff Bobo • Updated Dec 6, 2017 at 8:55 AM

ROGERSVILLE — It’s unknown whether a proposed Hawkins County Commission resolution exempting drivers 70 and older from paying the new $40 wheel tax increase is legal or whether it will put the county budget out of balance.

The resolution was proposed by Commissioners Fred Castle and Michael Herrell, who said they want to give that exemption to seniors as a Christmas present later this month.

Castle and Herrell both told the Times-News Tuesday they are concerned that the elderly retirees on a fixed income can’t afford the $40 increase which went into effect Oct. 1.

That $40 hike increased Hawkins County’s wheel tax to $67, which combined with the $29 state fee puts the cost of renewing vehicle tags in Hawkins County at $96.

“These elderly people need help,” Castle said Tuesday. “Hawkins County has a lot of people living under the poverty level. I’ve talked to several elderly people, and they want this. They said it will really help them. I feel like we need to help them because they’re already between a rock and a hard place, and now we’ve put them in a position where they have to make a choice between a ($96) tag, or their groceries or medicine.”

The commission was under the gun in June to eliminate a $2 million revenue deficit and pass a balanced 2017-18 budget by June 30 or face a state takeover of the budget. The county had been warned by the comptroller’s office that a budget takeover would likely involve forced cuts of all non-discretionary spending, including emergency services contributions, as well as a property tax hike.

Increasing the wheel tax was proposed as a more equitable option than putting the entire tax increase burden on property owners. 

The increase is projected to generate an additional $2 million per fiscal year. After it was approved by the county commission, the 2017-18 budget with the $40 wheel tax hike was approved by the state comptroller’s office.

Hawkins County Budget Committee Chairman Stacy Vaughan told the Times-News Tuesday he is in favor of the $40 wheel tax increase exemption for the elderly. He said his goal is to find additional cuts and new revenue sources so that the wheel tax can eventually be rolled back for everyone.

But Vaughan said the exemption should be brought up in the spring while the 2018-19 budget is being prepared. The Herrell/Castle resolution wasn’t backed by any budget impact figures showing whether it’s economically feasible at this stage of the fiscal year, Vaughan added.

County Clerk Nancy Davis told the Times-News Tuesday she has no way of knowing how many registered vehicles in Hawkins County are owned by persons 70 years of age or older, or how many of those will renew their tags between January and the end of the fiscal year June 30.

“I support this exemption for residents 70 and older, but if it puts our current budget out of balance, legally we can’t do it,” Vaughan said. “We don’t have the data to say what the impact will be one way or another. It’s a great idea, and I want to investigate it deeper next year when we start our 2018-19 budget hearings, but right now there’s not enough information.”               

County Mayor Melville Bailey told the Times-News he will be asking for clarification from the county attorney and the state comptroller’s office on the legality of the resolution before a vote is taken.                         

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